The Swallow That Hibernates Underwater

Outside, July 1992, Reprinted from WILD THOUGHTS FROM WILD PLACES (1998) by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster.

WE ALL MAKE our deals with life.  We do it invisibly, sometimes unconsciously, and alone, without benefit of collective bargaining.  We come to terms.

And the terms are in every case different.  Some of us hold out for more, for better, when others would settle.  Some of us settle when others would hold out.  We leave home, or we marry early, or we enlist, or enroll, or audition, or hunker down into a job then we jump through the hoops, or fly off the tracks, or sell out if there happen to be buyers;

 we invest years, gamble dollars, marry late, light out for the territories, raise a fine family, raise hell, declare Chapter Eleven, buy a Harley-Davidson on whim and roar of down the highway clad in leather, save, scrimp, drive a fifteen-year-old Nova with rust, sacrifice joyously, piss it away, loiter, maunder, hold the course, see our child graduate, keep faith with our commitments, sow oats in a high wind, marry often, travel great distances in search of a place to call home, lose big, win big, harbor regrets, fulfill finally our one wildest dream; or, alternatively, we don’t.  The compoundment of it all–what we’ve done and endured, what we’ve left undone and refused to endure–is our individualized deal, also called sometimes by the more august and despairing word fate.  There is no fate.  There’s a lifelong balancing-off between the possible and the all-too-likely, resulting in a succession of half-chosen arrangements, of which the last is burial or cremation.  We can even specify that our ashes go into a silver urn, or into a mountain river.  Then our deal-making is over, unless we’ve devised a nefariously prescriptive will.  Your deal is unique to you, mine to me, but we share the process.  During the early and middle decades of his adulthood, more than two centuries ago, an unassuming English clergyman named Gilbert White was arriving at a deal of his own.

 This man, like you and me, had to reconcile the tension between what he might want out of life and what, on the other hand, he was willing to accept.

 Gilbert White is famed as the author of The Natural History of Selborne, one of the most persistently cherished books in English literature.  According to a recent tally, White’s Selborne is the fourth most published title (as figured by number of different editions) in the language.  White himself has been celebrated as the grandfather of ecology and as the paradigm of the natural history essayist.  Despite the ponderousness of his reputation, he was in fact an exceptionally keen observer and a nifty writer.  He made a great difference, at the dawn of modern science, by studying the lives and habits of animals, instead of merely their dried carcasses.  He published only the one little volume, and did almost nothing else even faintly impressive, but his book is full of small insights and charm and secret significance, as potent in its own way as Walden.

 For right now, though, lets’ set the book and its impact to one side.  Maybe you already know Selborne.  If not, you can read it someday in a busy airport, when you need a tranquil counterpoint to reality, and make your own judgment then.  Two other facts about Gilbert White are more intriguing at the personal level–to me, anyway–than his place in literature and in science.

 Fact one:  He lived most of his life, and died, in the same little village where he’d been born.

 Fact two:  Despite fifty years of close study, he never abandoned his belief in the hibernation of swallows.


The hibernation of swallows is a misapprehension as old as Aristotle, who offered it in his Historia Animalium in the fourth century B.C.  A great number of birds “go into hiding” rather than migrating in winter to warmer locales, according to Aristotelian pronouncement.  “Swallows, for instance, have been often found in holes, quite denuded of their feathers,” he wrote, adding that ouzels and storks and turtle doves also went torpid and hid themselves.  An ouzel, that peculiar semiaquatic bird actually capable of walking on the bottom of a river might even be imagined to hibernate underwater.  A stork would presumably need a hollow tree.

 There were other nuggets of erroneous biological dogma in Aristotle’s work–for instance, the bit about eels being born from earthworms and earthworms being spontaneously generated in mud–but the hibernation of swallows was a fancy that endured.  Two millennia later, in Gilbert White’s era, the great systematizing biologist Carolus Linnaeus may have believed it himself.  One of Linnaeus’s more conspicuous students, A. M. Berger, definitely believed it, mentioning the notion in his Calendarium Florae as though it were certified fact.  Berger’s version of swallow hibernation was the radically wrongheaded subaqueous one.  Each season had its reliable signals, and early September, Berger observed, was when swallows went to hibernate underwater.

In The Natural History of Selborne White cited Berger’s claim, admitting that he was tempted to believe it himself.  Underwater hibernation seemed to jibe with what White had noticed on his own:  that swallows and their near relatives, in mid-autumn, with the young fledged and the nests abandoned, tended to gather in nervous flocks around ponds and rivers.  “Did these small weak birds, some of which were nestlings twelve days ago, shift their quarters at this late season of the year to the other side of the northern tropic?” he asked.  “Or rather, is it not more probable that the next church, ruin, chalk-cliff, steep covert, or perhaps sandbank, lake or pool (as a more northern naturalist would say), may become their hybernaculum, and afford them a ready and obvious retreat?  This wasn’t so much a rhetorical question as a genuine uncertainty within his own mind:  Was it more probable, or not?  He couldn’t decide.  The Natural History of Selborne took him eighteen years to compose (partly because he insisted on padding it out with a pedantic section on historical antiquities, which has been mercifully omitted from some edition), based on a long lifetime of watching and rumination.  But he never did settle the question of wintering swallows.

His eyesight and his knowledge of birds pushed him toward one answer, I think, while his heart preferred another.


 Selborne is a tiny, ancient village set among the hills and meadows of Hampshire, about forty miles southwest of London.  In White’s time, those forty miles represented a long journey by coach from one world to another.  The lanes of Selborne are cut deep as canals by centuries of traffic and erosion.  In the churchyard is a yew tree, huge in girth and guessed to have stood for perhaps more than a dozen centuries.  Just beside the church is the vicarage, where Gilbert was born in 1720.  His grandfather was vicar of Selborne.

 In basic outline, Gilbert White’s life appears simple and happy and sweet.  From the age of about nine, after his grandfather’s death, he was raised in a sizable house called The Wakes, just across the village green from the vicarage.  He was an outdoorsy boy who planted trees and occasionally made notes on his natural history observations.  He went off to boarding school, then to Oxford, and in his mid-twenties took deacon’s orders, which made him essentially a licensed clergyman in search of a job.  During his thirties he traveled widely around England, visiting friends and extended family, seeing the countryside, and serving in some temporary posts as a fill-in churchman.  Always, even during those years, Selborne remained his true home and retreat.  In 1760 he returned there permanently.  He accepted a modest clerical position nearby.  He lived the rest of his life at the old family home, The Wakes.  He became a serious gardener and began keeping a horticultural diary, quite terse and businesslike at first, which gradually evolved into the journal of a full-hearted naturalist.  He never married or, apparently, even came close. According to a later biographer, Gilbert “had but one mistress–Selborne.”

Another scholar of White’s life and work, Richard Mabey, has written:  “He never scrimped his clerical duties, but with only a few dozen marriages and burials to attend to a year, had plenty of free time to pursue his natural history.”  He watched birds.  He recorded the seasonal timing of their activities in his journal, year after year.  He paid attention to crickets and slugs and hedgehogs and the weather and the hibernating rhythms of an old pet tortoise named Timothy.  He raised cantaloupes, succulent enough to make a preacher proud.  He studied the barn swallow, Hirundo rustica, and certain similar species (martins and swifts) with particular devotion.  Eventually he wrote his book, styling it as a series of information-filled letters to two other men, both of them naturalists better traveled and better known than he.  The first edition was a modest success.  Forty years after his death, the book became surprisingly, voguishly popular.  Historians now talk about “the cult of Gilbert White and Selborne.”  Readers have belatedly recognized that this unprepossessing man (of whom there seems to be no surviving portrait) found great scope and great wisdom, as well as beauty and peace, within the boundaries of his little village.  He lived to age seventy-two.  Needless to say, this outline leaves a hell of a lot out.

It leaves out, among other things, the tension between what he may have wanted from life and what he got.

One sample of that tension, from the larger pattern:  Gilbert, unlike his grandfather, never became vicar of Selborne.  He couldn’t.  For reasons that must have seemed adequate to a nineteen-year-old, he had gone to the wrong college at Oxford–Gilbert was an Oriel man, whereas the vicar’s position at Selborne was restricted, by certain archaic regulations, to graduates of Magdalen.  Disqualified to be vicar, what he eventually became instead was curate of Selborne, and the difference is more than semantic.  Within the Anglican hierarchy of White’s time, a curate was just a delegated assistant who functioned as acting pastor.  The curacies were often short-term assignments, meagerly paid, like a non-tenure-track lectureship at a modern university.  A vicar was a salaried professional; a curate, subcontracted under a vicar, was a liturgical flunky.  And even the Selborne curacy came to him late in life.  Throughout most of his middle age, though he lived in Selborne, he held a curate’s position not for Selborne itself but for one or another small village in the vicinity, to which he commuted by horse.  Old friends goaded him for decades:  Gil, you shirking doofus, with a little push you could land a respectable Oriel vicariate somewhere else.  He declined to push.  At one time, when he was younger and more energized, he had tried for a good position through Oriel and been rebuffed.  He wouldn’t try again.  He had money enough to get by.  Selborne was familiar and safe, and it was home.  He loved the meadows and woods.  If he had any broader ambitions, they were secondary to his sense of place.

Another sample:  In 1763, when Gilbert was a 42-year-old bachelor whose juices still flowed, three young sisters swept into Selborne for a summer visit and caused him some delicious perturbation.  Their names were Anne, Philadelphia and Catharine Battie.  They were in their late teens and early twenties, and (as nicely said in the wonderful White biography by Richard Mabey, to which I’m indebted for most of these facts of personal history) they were “rich, flighty and attractive.  They fizzed about the village for two months, and left a perceptible dent” in Gilbert’s composure.  There were balls and picnics and other sorts of gently flirtatious shenanigans.  Catharine was the sister who caught Gilbert’s eye.  Her own attention seems to have flickered more on Harry, Gilbert’s much younger brother.  Gilbert himself, after all, was a middle-aged man of no particular forcefulness, a bachelor past his prime, and not even a vicar but a curate.  The summer interlude was fun but not serious–at least no, evidently, to the Battie sisters.  They left Selborne in August.  On November 1, Gilbert wrote a poem, gloomy with autumnal images and dedicated “To the Miss Batties,” which ended:

Return, blithe maidens; with you bring along

Free, native humour, all the charms of song,

The feeling heart, and unaffected ease,

Each nameless grace, and ev’ry power to please.

But they never did.

Still another sample:  In 1768, White sent (indirectly, through a mutual friend) an invitation to Joseph Banks, the celebrated and wealthy young naturalist who was about to leave on a round-the-world voyage of exploration with Captain Cook.  Would Mr. Banks and the mutual friend care to visit Mr. White in Selborne?  If Banks will just do him the honor, White promised, “he will find how many curious plants I am acquainted with in my own Country.” It must have sounded faintly pathetic.  Getting no acceptance, White wrote directly to Banks, a polite but mopey letter in which he complained that, if Mr. Banks and other busy colleagues wouldn’t visit him, “I must plod on by myself, with few books and no soul to communicate my doubts or discoveries to.”  Joseph Banks sailed away on the Endeavour. He would visit Tierra del Fuego, and Tahiti, and New Zealand, and Australia (where he’d discover, among other things, kangaroos), but not Selborne.

Gilbert White was a stay-at-home guy during an age when the great naturalists made great expeditions; and he knew it.  Broad travel, the collection of exotic observations and specimens, seemed fundamental to the enterprise.  Linnaeus had gone to Lapland.  Banks, even before the Cook voyage, had done fieldwork in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Pehr Osbeck sailed to China.  Johann Gmelin got to Siberia, and Carl Peter Thunberg to imperial Japan, eventually publishing is Flora Japonica.  Darwin and Huxley and Hooker would later make crucial voyages of discovery.  Henry Bates would bring important data and insights back from the Amazon.  Alfred Russel Wallace would wander the Malay Archipelago for eight years.

Gilbert White, as he grew older, as he settled more rigidly the terms of his life, traveled less and less.  Even the familiar roads of southern England got to be too much for him.  By his own account, he was prone to horrible coach sickness.  But we shouldn’t assume that he achieved obliviousness to what he was missing.

I don’t claim that these particular deprivations–of a vicar’s position, of Catharine Battie’s affection, of the inspiriting companionship of Joseph Banks and other naturalist colleagues, of the chance to go off on a great expedition himself–were the four big facts of his life.  What I suspect is that they were representative.


Swallows, like martins and swifts, feed on insects taken in flight.  Their amazing agility on the wing is a prerequisite to this dietary strategy.  They cruise, they dive, they swoop, they swim through the air, gathering small mouthfuls of gnat and mosquito and beetle.  Aquatic insects such as mayflies and caddisflies–which emerge from the water’s surface as winged adults, often in synchronous events during which one species or another fills the air with its blizzard-thick multitudes–are especially convenient food for these birds.  So they tend to congregate around rivers and ponds.  They are also drawn to villages and small towns, where human-made structures with overhung roofs and rafters offer good sites for their nests.  But if the insect density in a certain locale isn’t high, or if the insects aren’t taking wing at some particular time of year, then swallows and martins and swifts can’t afford the metabolic cost of their habitual swooping and diving.  They can’t make a living there.  So they migrate.

Besides being graceful, they have stamina.  They travel long distances out of the north in order to winter in warm, buggy places.  Swallows from Siberia go to Sumatra, Swallows from Canada go to South America.  Swallows from Europe cross the Mediterranean and the Sahara.  Although the movements of discrete populations aren’t easy to track precisely, modern bird-banding work suggests that the British population of Hirundo rustica, the barn swallow, probably spends Christmas in South Africa.

Gilbert White never banded the birds of Selborne.  Sometimes he shot them and dissected them.  He peeked into their nests.  Mostly he watched them, acutely but lovingly, from a respectful distance.

In The Natural History of Selborne, he wrote:  “The hirundines are a most inoffensive, harmless, entertaining, social, and useful tribe of birds:  they touch no fruit in our gardens; delight, all except one species, in attaching themselves to our houses; amuse us with their migrations, songs, and marvellous agility; and clear our outlets from the annoyance of gnats and other troublesome insects.”

Then he did believe in swallow migration–that notably amusing attribute–as opposed to swallow hibernation?  Yes and no.  Elsewhere in the book, White voiced his equivocating opinion “that, though most of the swallow kind may migrate, yet that some do stay behind and hide with us during the winter.” Joseph Banks had gone off to remote places that White would never see; the Misses Battie had gone off; so many others had gone off and left him behind–including, each autumn, most if not all of the British swallows.  But maybe some of those birds lingered secretly in Selborne, mitigating the wintry isolation of a poor bachelor curate.

He imagined that they might “lay themselves up like insects and bats, in a torpid state, to slumber away the more uncomfortable months till the return of the sun and fine weather awakens them.”  Where exactly did they hide?  Not in their old nests; he had checked.  But he recalled the curious affinity they seemed to have for rivers and ponds, which caused him “greatly to suspect that house-swallows have some strong attachment to water, independent of the matter of food; and though they  may not retire into that element, yet they  may conceal themselves in the banks of pools and rivers during the uncomfortable months of winter.”

Where were the swallows of December?  He was honest enough to claim no final answer.

His book was published in 1789.  He died in 1793, at his house in the village.  His death came in June of the year, so we can assume that the swallows were back from Africa, nesting outside his window.

Gilbert White’s reputation is based partly on the fact that he was an extraordinarily fine observer, a painstaking empiricist who relied on his own eyes and ears, not on secondhand anecdotes and theoretical preconceptions.  His mistake about swallow hibernation was an uncharacteristic lapse.  He had ulterior reasons, I think, for keeping the idea alive.  These reasons pertain not to the ecology and behavior of Hirundo rustica, of course, but to the natural history of the human soul.  The swallow that hibernates underwater is a creature called yearning.